Michael Kors Grayson smartwatch review: Fashionably late to excellence

For a time, it seemed like every phone manufacturer was hot on Android Wear, but those days are long behind us. While we still have big names like LG and Huawei building watches for the masses, it's the fashion brands like Fossil, Tag Heuer, Movado — even Louis Vuitton — that have picked up the mantle. Oh, and Michael Kors, which is far more associated with high-end bags, shoes and analog watches than gadgets.

Last year, I took a look at a promising but flawed Dylan Access smartwatch from Michael Kors, which shared dozens of problems with Android Wear watches launched in the previous two years. But Michael Kors is working with a more mature market now, and has access to better hardware. To wit, the Grayson and Sofie watches that were pre-announced during Baselworld in March and are now shipping starting at $350.

I want to point out some massive improvements to both of these watches: they no longer have the dreaded flat tire that became the butt of a million jokes on the Moto 360 series; and the displays themselves are of considerably higher quality. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they run Android Wear 2.0, which pairs really nicely with the rotating crown on the Grayson's right side (it sits in the middle of two programmable buttons). Given that I have yet to use the LG Watch Sport, this is my first interaction with a crown on Android Wear, and I am quite impressed: it makes navigating the UI considerably easier and more fluid. And while the Grayson's crown isn't as well-calibrated as that of the Apple Watch (my only other source of comparison at this point), it's pretty damn good.

Both Grayson and Sofie also have nice-looking round AMOLED displays, Sofie's a 1.19-inch 390x390 panel with beautiful colors and excellent viewing angles. Grayson's is even better, measuring at 1.39 inches and 454x454 pixels, one of the highest-resolution on the market today. They're paired with 300mAh and 370mAh batteries as well, and feature the standard loadout of Android Wear specs, including a Snapdragon Wear 2100 chip, 4GB of storage, 512MB of RAM and IP68 water resistance. And yes, they come with ambient light sensors this year.

There's a great smartwatch underneath the fashion marketing.

The charging mechanism is still clumsy, but the magnets have been strengthened to prevent the attachment from ignominiously slipping off during the night (which is why I stopped wearing the Dylan — I woke up to a dead watch almost every morning). In my week or so using the Grayson, I've had no problems with its magnetic charging, which is a nice surprise.

Both Sofie and Grayson are a part of Michael Kors' commitment to smartwatches; the former comes in eight color combinations (not to mention a smattering of jewels around the bezel) and a seven strap combinations; the latter in four colors and four strap options. I've been using the stainless steel black Grayson with matching black metal strap, and the quality is outstanding, as has been the experience.

But it's important to talk about who these watches are being marketed to. Android Wear may be old hat to readers of this site, but many people in the fashion world are coming to connected wearables for the first time, and have likely held back due to poor designs and lackluster product quality. Grayson, like its competitors from Fossil, Tag and others, tries to recreate the traditional analog look as much as possible, both with a recognizable chassis design and, of course, watch faces.

To say that the pre-loaded Michael Kors watch faces that arrive on the Grayson are not to my taste would be an understatement. But they're there for those who want them, and Android Wear 2.0 makes it easy to switch between them effortlessly using a swipe on the screen, or load new ones through the built-in Play Store.

One thing that Michael Kors has improved from a watch face perspective this year, though, is its Access app. The premise is simple: you give the app access to your Instagram or Facebook account and let it download photos to your watch to use as background images. Given my propensity for taking sunset shots, my Instagram feed was the perfect vehicle for showing off Grayson's beautiful AMOLED display, and I couldn't be happier with the outcome.

Android Wear 2.0 has also been given a bad rap. It's got its flaws, sure, but I have been happily using it over the past week to receive notifications, check the weather sans phone, and count my steps using Google Fit. Neither Grayson nor Sofie have built-in heart rate sensors, but their accelerometers do the heavy lifting for fitness tracking.

I'm surprised at how much I like the Grayson, and feel it fits nicely into both Michael Kors' growing line of fashion smartwatches and Android Wear's move to a more mainstream platform as a whole. There's nothing remarkable or new here — battery life is still around a day to a day and a half with moderate use, and Android Wear apps are still a dumpster fire — but for $350 you get a nicely designed stainless steel smartwatch with one of the best screens I've seen on a wearable to date.

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Daniel Bader

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central.